Time to redress the balance but let′s do it on merit . . .

04 February 2011

A conference in the region hosted by the Entrepreneurs’ Forum with Women into the Network will today mark the centenary of International Women’s Day. Business Correspondent Andy Richardson hears how leading businesswomen overcame barriers and asked why they are under-represented in the boardroom.

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day emerged from the socialist movement 100 years ago as a rallying point for women’s claims to work, receive training, vote and end discrimination.

It has evolved into a global event to recognise women’s achievements that is celebrated as a public holiday in dozens of countries; from China to Cuba.

However, the recent debate over the male domination that still prevails in UK boardrooms shows that full equality in the workplace is still some way off.

According to recent reports by Cranfield School of Management, only 12.5 per cent of company board positions in the UK’s FTSE 100 companies are occupied by women.

The situation is even worse in the FTSE 250, with only 7.8 per cent of board posts filled by women, while half of firms have no female board members at all. Last year, 18 out of the 135 new non-executive director appointments were women.

Lord Davies’ recent report recommended that companies should aim to have women filling at least 25 per cent of the seats on their boards by 2015, and warned that this represented a “last chance” for corporate Britain to instigate a change in behaviour, otherwise the Government would be forced to impose statutory quotas.

Countries such as Norway already have a mandatory quota system in place and it has produced real change in their boardrooms, with 34 per cent of directors now women.

However, Entrepreneur Rachel Elnaugh is among those vehemently opposed to the UK following suit.

Ms Elnaugh rose to prominence as a panellist on BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den and now works as a venture capital advisor and business speaker. She is sharing her experiences at today’s conference at the Radisson Hotel, in Durham.

“Frankly, I think the idea of a quota is bonkers,” she said.

“The problem is that women will be promoted as token figures. I felt a bit like that on the first series of Dragons’ Den. It’s nice that they will have two women on the next series (Deborah Meaden and Hilary Devey), but it’s taken them ten series to get there.

“It’s such a shame that the Government is thinking of meddling, because what will happen is that the women who are promoted will have their male colleagues saying ‘she only got the job because of her gender’. It would completely undermine women in the workplace.”

Kanya King is also addressing today’s event in the North-East. She is the youngest girl of nine children – seven girls and two boys.

“My parents wanted me to become a teacher, instead I left school at 16 and became a parent,” said Ms King, who launched the Music Of Black Origin (Mobo) urban awards in 1996, which has become a fixture in the music industry and has featured performances from leading artists, including Rihanna, Amy Winehouse and Beyonce.

Ms King now employs hundreds of people for Mobo, which commands a global audience of 250 million TV viewers.

She added: “Women aren’t going to wait around for opportunities to emerge in the corporate world, which is why so many are setting up their own business. But, I would rather not see us reverting to positive discrimination. I want a change of mindset.

“There needs to be a shake-up so that more gifted women rise to the top. I believe many firms have become lazy and continue to recruit from the same old talent pools.

There needs to be more diversity. In my own team, I don’t want everyone to be like me – I need a mix of different perspectives.”

Heidi Mottram, chief executive of County Durham-based Northumbrian Water also believes the challenge facing companies is to promote a more diverse mix of staff.

“I have worked very hard to get where I am and would like to be recognised for my business contribution, not my gender, she said.

“However, I can’t duck the fact that it is unusual for a woman to be in my position.

“You are influenced by role models and your network, so if you don’t see women in senior business roles, you may think that’s not what you should be doing. I believe that anyone who has the skills and works hard enough can do it.

“I buy in to the research that shows diverse boards tend to run more successful businesses. From a commercial point of view, that is a killer argument. Clearly, gender is part of that, but it’s more to do with understanding and representing the wider community that you are in.”

Michelle Mone, founder and coowner of MJM International, the creator of the Ultimo bra, is even more forthright: “There was a recent report that said there is going to be a blast of female entrepreneurs coming through in the next few years – how can they come up with all that c**p?” she asked.

“I think we get so caught up in the whole gender thing. Men and women have different talents. They say there’s not enough women on the board of companies. I admit that there are still issues with men having their pally little cliques and playing golf and rugby together, but if you want it badly enough you’ll get there. That is what I have done all of my life. I have worked my way up to the top.”

Rachel Elnaugh believes that even without changes to the law, maledominated boardrooms are becoming an anachronism.

“There is a paradigm shift away a desire for money, greed and power.

Consumers are attracted to brands founded on the principles of integrity, collaboration, ethics, and passion – all things that naturally come to women in business. I think it is becoming easier for women to be a success in business. The pinstriped dinosaurs who run business in an archaic, patriarchal way will start to fall away in the next ten years.”

Kanya King’s father, Christian, was a labourer of Ghanaian descent, while her mother, Mary, was an Irish-born nurse. She believes that entering a corporate world where there aren’t many people like you – whether that be in terms of gender or race – can be an advantage.

“You are going to stand out, so why not be outstanding as well? she said.

“I often go in to meetings and I am the only woman there, but people remember me – I make an impact.

“The world really is changing.

Women are massive consumers and we know how to target other women, so you are missing a trick if you don’t include them as part of your team.”

So who were the role models who inspired today’s businesswomen?

Michelle Mone admitted that as a working class woman from a deprived part of Scotland, she regarded herself as a trailblazer.

“When I was growing up there were no female entrepreneurs I saw as role models. I am from the roughest part of Glasgow, left school at 15 and, by rights, I shouldn’t be sitting where I am today. But I believe that it doesn’t matter where you are from, or what education you have got. If you want something badly enough, you will work for it.

That’s what I have done.”

Rachel Elnaugh said: “It is so important for women to have role models and that is what today’s event is all about – inspirational women saying, ‘Yes, you can do it’.

“I was an accountant in the City of London in the Eighties. Anita Roddick and Debbie Moore were floating companies on the Stock Exchange. I set up my business, Red Letter Days, in 1989 amid that wave of female empowerment.”

Kanya King recalled drawing strength from someone closer to home: “My mother brought up nine children and started her own hotel business at the age of 70. She had a dream and showed me that gender, age and background shouldn’t be a barrier.

“She was a strong woman. Whenever I was invited to events she was always pushing my cause. One time she went up to Tony Blair and told him he should employ me because I was such a hard worker. With a strong woman like her fighting my corner, I couldn’t fail to succeed – I wouldn’t dare.”

The Northern Echo - www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/

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